Charlie Park has been a volunteer DJ at KNON-FM 89.3 The Voice of the People on and off since 1983, the first year of the station's existence. At that time, KNON was housed in the upper level of a big, creaky white house on the corner of San Jacinto Street and Carroll Avenue, which at the time was a seriously rough neighborhood. Neither of the house's denizens, which included KNON in the upstairs portion and the Dallas chapter of ACORN on the lower level, had a legitimate occupancy license. But those kind of off-the-cuff business practices were par for the course in the station's early years.
Park is admittedly nostalgic for those days. Now 51 years old and still an on-air personality, he recalls lugging his crate of punk rock vinyl records up the rickety stairwell and into the bedroom that served as KNON's broadcast booth until the station moved into its current location on Maple Avenue in 2004. Although Park now houses his playlist on a laptop, he continues to carry in a crate of CDs every other Tuesday — just in case his laptop fails. Much like the rest of KNON, Park is unabashedly old-school, and he likes it that way.
Dave "Chaos" Walkington, KNON's general manager, started out as Charlie Park's assistant way back in 1984. These days, he's moved up the ladder. His job description entitles doing, he jokes, "what needs to be done," which includes event planning, underwriting and administrative work, as well as hosting his own show on Wednesday nights. Walkington, 48, has held the station manager title for eight years now. When asked to describe what his job is like, he smiles, his teeth gray from years of smoking.
"It's a life sentence," he says with a sigh, describing his typical work week as lasting 50 to 60 hours — or, as he puts it, par for the course if you're one of the few paid employees at KNON. "You have to be very, very committed to it."
Running a station like KNON is a mammoth undertaking, indeed. The station's staff includes five paid employees, 67 volunteer DJs and assorted volunteer assistants and workers. KNON's yearly operating costs add up to a cool $500,000, most of which goes to tower rental and paying the staff.
"It's very expensive to run a radio station," Walkington says.
Until recently, KNON had some help from the federal government in the form of a $100,000 Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant. One-third of this grant was allotted for national programming like "Democracy Now" and "The Tavis Smiley Show," which don't come cheap. The other two-thirds went to operating expenses. But the station lost the grant after a 2009 CPB audit, which took a fine-toothed comb to exactly how the station was using its federal funding. Auditors pulled KNON's financial records from 2008 and found some questionable record-keeping, which was enough for the CPB to pull the station's grant money.
Walkington readily admits that KNON's accountants kept poor records that year, but he says that the station management discovered the problem and took care of it by the time that the auditors swooped in. Even so, the damage had already been done. According to Walkington, the CPB refused to look at the bookkeeping improvements that happened in 2009, after the station discovered the accounting discrepancies and fixed the problem. Several prominent Dallasites, including Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and Mayor Tom Leppert, submitted letters to the CPB, requesting that KNON be put on probation and allowed to prove that it really did clean up its accounting. Nonetheless, the CPB still opted to pull the grant entirely in January of this year.
In other words, KNON is now completely community funded. Earlier this week, the station wrapped up its latest pledge drive, which it has always held quarterly to fund the remaining operating costs not covered by federal funding. Before the grant was pulled, KNON had to raise $88,000 per quarter to stay in business; this past May, that figure increased to $114,000.
Scott Firman, a DJ celebrating 15 years as host of "Texas Blues Radio" on Wednesday nights, summed up the station's sentiments about pledge drives during a recent broadcast.
"You don't want to hear me talk about the pledge drive," he said, deadpan. "I don't want to talk about the pledge drive. But the only way to get me to shut up is to pledge."
His plea elicited a chuckle from the two staunchly cheerful volunteers manning the phones. The pledges trickled in slowly; when a call came in from a woman pledging several hundred dollars, the room erupted in cheers. Moments like this, however, are rare. The phones weren't exactly ringing off the hook. That's bad news for KNON, which, in addition to changing the amount raised in each pledge drive, has also had to change the duration of the drive itself.
"We used to do just two weeks," says pledge drive coordinator and music director Christian Lee. "At the end of that two weeks, we would just stop, no matter what we got. We wouldn't — I don't wanna say torture our listeners, but we don't want to beat them over the head with it."
Now, the station has reluctantly abandoned the two-week limit; it now continues the pledge drive until it raises enough money to keep the station going, no matter how long that takes.
"We go until we hit the goal," Lee says. "We did this the first time in May, and it took us almost three weeks — not quite, but just about three weeks — to get [to $114,000]."
This most recent drive took about the same amount of time.
It can be tough, Walkington says, to raise the funds since KNON listeners and pledgers "run the gamut," much like the station, which begins its day with gospel music, heads into political talk, fills its afternoons with R&B and Tejano and concludes the day with country, blues and rock. But each show's length depends on how many pledges come in during that particular show; if a particular show lags behind in pledges, its duration might get cut, as happened to hip-hop pioneer DJ EZ Eddie D's legendary Saturday evening show, which, despite being the second-longest running hip-hop radio show in the nation, had its time slot cut in half to one hour because people simply didn't pledge. Shows that languish in the dreaded "bottom 10" of pledge draws are at risk of being axed completely.
When KKXT-FM 91.7 entered the music-oriented public radio market a couple years ago, the inevitable question arose: Would KXT lure away a large chunk of KNON's listeners? Surprisingly, the folks at KNON don't consider KXT to be competition. The most popular programs on KNON are gospel, country and Latin-oriented shows, which KXT doesn't have. KXT, however, does get federal funding, while KNON must depend entirely on listener support. The average listener pledge is $50.
As such, Walkington admits that some aspects of KNON are behind the times. The station can't afford fancy equipment and its website is pretty bare-bones. In a sense, it's how the station has always operated.
But, much like Charlie Park, most station representatives say they're OK with being a little old-school. Thing is, they don't really have any other choice.
And, so long as enough money keeps trickling in to support it, Park says he'll just keep lugging his CD crate into the office every week, just as he's done for nearly 30 years. Sure, he may be working for free, but he feels lucky to be able to do what he does.
"The thing about working here," Charlie says, leaning against his trusty crate at the end of a recent on-air shift, "is that we're in a top 10 market, and I get to play whatever I want."
With that, Charlie smiles, clicks a few switches and bids farewell, descending the stairs with his crate and laptop in tow.